A few weeks ago, Steven Brust began posting “Texas Wisdom”: Zen teachings re-koanified through Billy-Bob Gautama, whose name says all that needs saying. Never one to let someone else’s good idea lie unplagiarized, I’ve been posting my own entries to #texaswisdom on Twitter, which the supremely bored among you may have noticed.
What’s kept my interest in this nano-project is not merely pathetic hashtag onanism (note to the enterprising: there are no entries at #onanism), but the nature of the humor. It took me weeks before I could come up with this stuff that comes naturally to Brust. No one, of course, will be surprised that a bestselling fantasy author is a quicker draw on teh hum0rz than a multiclass academic, but I find the process of creating the jokes more koanlike than actual Zen koans, which I usually find either obvious or inscrutable. Simultaneously combing koan libraries, trying to conjure up amusing Texas stereotypes, and searching for a fit between the two is a cognitive operation of sufficient complexity that I have basically no idea what’s going on. It’s totally unlike, say, figuring out what ought to happen next in a story, because in that case you have one relatively fixed reference point — what’s already written. It isn’t totally fixed, but you’re biased to view it as fixed, constraining what you will write rather than vice versa. (Exceptions obviously occur when you, e.g., have an idea that’s so cool or necessary that you retcon what you’ve already written to accommodate it.) In trying to create a nugget of Texas wisdom, you fix neither a koan nor a stereotype; neither one is any good without a counterpart that works with it, so you vary both simultaneously and hope you find something.
Maybe I’m overestimating the size of the problem. I suppose what I do is dig through koans, usually winnowing them by length, and hope that a brief scan through hillbilly stereotypes generates something good. I don’t have a terribly articulated hillbilly stereotype, so it doesn’t take too long. But Texas wisdom is more than just juxtaposition. The hillbilly component has to interact with the koan, swiftly twisting the cosmic authority of abstract Eastern wisdom into the cosmic authority of homespun American common sense. This doesn’t describe all of Texas wisdom — notably not #1, which I think is the best. But I think most of them can be safely classified as reversals: Eastern setup, Western twist. Presumably my inability to articulate a general theory of Texas wisdom suggests that there are further levels I have yet to attain.
My analytical skills are beginning to falter, so I’ll quit here. Maybe I’ll come back to humor and creativity sometime in the future. The real point is, I think Texas wisdom is a form of humor almost unto itself, it’s surprisingly hard to do, and Steven Brust is to be nodded at with stroked chin and thoughtful squint for creating it.